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The Avian Prometheus

  • Berwyn Powell
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The pain is now almost all consuming. The chill slowly seeping fire into my old bones. But I endure it willingly, for the infected Jay I have brought with me into this icy tomb may hold the key to his species’ salvation. Already, frost clings to his iridescent feathers, but inside him the virus sleeps; and that dormancy may allow me the time to better understand the disease that threatens his fellows.

Yes, this is a bargain that I willingly make. For is it not my own species that has driven his to the point of extinction? The least I can do to repay them is to endure the cold for a little while.


I have managed to isolate the pathogen. I am always astounded how any organism, even one so questionably alive as a virus, manages to survive in this wasteland that humanity has made of the Earth; but this not only survives, it thrives with such vigour that it has already numbered its days.

In the early stages of infection it resembles the SARS viruses of the beginning of this century. Once infected, a host will spread the virus to other animals for weeks before developing any symptoms. This asymptomatic spread must be what has allowed it to ravage the bird populations in such a short period of time, for once the disease begins to manifest itself it proves as fatal to its host as repository anthrax, and all transmission will quickly cease with the onset of death.

Even in the freezing temperatures of the lab it still seems to be spreading, seemingly realising my worst fears for its virulence. I must find a cure soon.


I think I may have a vaccine, but am bereft of a test subject. My feathered friend is too valuable to risk exposing at this stage, for if this inoculation fails I will need his help in developing another; besides, any changes in temperature required for the trial will, at least temporarily, aid the natural strain that already spreads within him and none of the antivirals I have are effective for avian patients. Nor can I risk a foray outside to seek other subjects, for I may unwittingly be a carrier to the disease.

It seems that the enthusiasms of an old man may have been my undoing, but I could not wait. All around me the birds are dying and the rest of humanity seems inured to extinction; they see no sense in trying to save something which may already be past saving.

I was right to make this attempt. No matter how desperate the situation may be, it is better to have tried and failed than to have sat idly by and done nothing. But can I risk infecting the other survivors in order to test my panacea?

No, it must be myself. At least I can determine if the vaccine is safe in a human host before testing its efficacy in my poor dying Jay. If it succeeds… no, I dare not let myself hope for that.

I have administered a shot to myself, now I must wait to see what transpires.



For weeks I waited. Then, when no ill effects manifested themselves I gave a dose to the Jay. I slowly increased the temperature in the lab and observed with baited breath what might transpire. At first nothing seemed to happen, then as the subject warmed he fell into a deep fever. Despair gripped me. Had I doomed him with my hastiness? But all the tests had seemed to show that the vaccine worked.

For days I watched over him, feeding him water and nutrients from a syringe that he barely managed to lap up. Each day he seemed to be getting weaker, but last night the fever broke.

This morning he is flying about the lab, apparently in good health, and hoarding any shiny bits of metal he finds. Some of my equipment is ruined, but I care not; for I have just analysed a blood sample and the virus is gone! And in its place? Antigens!

I go now to seek more of my bird’s kin. I dare not hope, but I may yet save them.


The last month has passed in a blur. I have barely slept and yet I am elated. I now share my laboratory with thirty corvids and the noise and smell are overwhelming. I have had to move my equipment into what were previously my sleeping quarters, for the birds’ natural inquisitiveness has rendered any instruments left in with them inoperable.

I now sleep under a work table and my bones ache like never before. At least the temperature is now more bearable, but I wake every morning barely able to move from the pain.

And what makes this life of asceticism worthwhile? What drives one such as I who should be under the care of others to maintain my self-imposed exile?

Not one of my co-habitants are infected by the disease, and all but a single old rook have produced antigens. Soon, I will start releasing them back into the wild.


The worst of all possible things has happened. Whilst I laboured amongst my vials in this frozen hell an old waste tanker, sailing adrift for years without a working transponder, emerged from the ocean mists and ran aground off the coast. Now its contents are spilled and the animals I am trying to save from disease are being poisoned by the cast-off refuse of my ancestors.

Can humanity not once learn from their mistakes? Is everything we ever build damned to come back and haunt us?

All we do is produce waste. We take life and we leave behind refuse. Filth. Excrement. Every action we take serves to further the ends of entropy.

There are some amongst us who care, but ever are their works destroyed by the short-sightedness of those who know only how to consume. Sometimes, I think that life’s best chance of continued survival would lie in the extinction of my species; the ones who have brought all others to their knees.

I can write no longer, for despair fills me.


My thoughts are dark, and continually turn to places I wish they would not go. A seed, planted by despair, has begun to grow in my mind, and its blooms are horror. If the tools to save life itself rested within your hands, would it not be beholden upon you to use them? Whatever the cost? What price is damnation when it would ensure the salvation of so many uncounted trillions?

Mankind will bring about the extinction of all other life, of that I am sure. Much of my equipment is now ruined by the birds that I have saved; but I still possess a culture of the virus and the facilities to make basic modifications to its genome. The changes required to adapt it to a new host would be trivial…

… but I must not. That way lies madness and a crime too monumental to contemplate. I must rest. In the morning I will resume my program of inoculation. Yesterday brought a major setback, but I may still save something of life’s glorious variety.


I have done it. My God, I have done it.

The new culture spreads in a cell-line in front of me. My changes have transformed it into something of perverse beauty; the removal of some choice segments of RNA have boosted the virulence and increased the incubation time. Instead of weeks of asymptomatic spread, any hosts to the new virus will carry it for months before succumbing.

Beside me the old rook preens herself happily, totally untouched by the injection I administered a few weeks before. My new creation should only act on a single host, but to release it would be unthinkable.

Outside, all of the animals are dying. My little flock here is safe from the poisons released into the environment, but their fellows are not so lucky.

Sweet Lord! I should not have created this thing; for I know, in the end, I will not have the strength to resist. After all, what are the lives of a few billion, compared to the continuation of life itself?


It is done.

For three months I played the socialite, travelling the world. I attended galas and concerts, I frequented dens of iniquity and I walked the streets of the greatest slums the world has ever seen; and, all the while, I was shedding my disease.

I had expected that this would be my last act as a thinking being, a final gift to life itself, a creeping death to wash away this world of sin; one that, before the end, would also claim myself, the greatest sinner of all.

But it was not to be. The vaccine against the natural strain that I tested upon myself all those months ago seems to have granted me a measure of protection against the ravages of my creation. When the symptoms did show themselves it seemed as if I would burn up from the fever that gripped me, but eventually it passed and I survived. A fitting punishment, perhaps, that I should bear witness to the fruits of my labours?

For the rest of Homo sapiens have not been so lucky. Outside, I can see the fires and hear the screams as the few survivors, driven mad by the horrors they have seen, finish what I have started. I think it likely that I will never sleep again, but this, as well, is only just.

For now I wait here with my birds. We are safe from the chaos that plagues the outside world. Like Noah in his Ark, we wait patiently below for the rains to subside.

And when the flood has passed we will once again return to the outside world, and start to recolonise the earth.



These last few years have been hard, and I have been unable to find the time to write. As the last survivor of the human race, after all, I have had to see to all of my needs myself. Now, however, things have changed, and I feel the need once again to write down my thoughts. So that, if anything is to come after, it will at least have a chance of knowing how things came to be.

For months I had waited in what felt like the Stygian depths of the earth, as the last of mankind writhed in their death throes. When at last the noises had subsided and a stillness lay upon the earth I gathered together my birds and we emerged, blinking, into the sunlight of the world that I had created; and that world was terrible.

Just as Noah had ridden out the flood and emerged to find the world changed, so too did we look upon this new land. But whereas for him the rains had washed away all evidence of sin, my own cleansing had been far less thorough, and resembled rather the ruins of Gomorrah after they had been razed by divine fire. I will not speak here of the terrors that greeted me for those first few months, but each night I still wake screaming as I remember what I have done.

Life, however, is resilient, and it is virile; and it was not long before nature began to reclaim the ruins of man. My species’ massive over production had served me well and I was not left wanting for food, as the remains of shops and farms could supply me for several lifetimes. Instead, I dedicated all of my waking hours to aiding in the regeneration. I have lost count of the trees that I have planted, and the tonnes of rubbish that I have buried beneath the ground. All will not return to how it was before, of course. We have left too many traces of ourselves for that - too many poisons in the air and seas; but, slowly, Terra is once again coming to resemble a paradise.

The air is once again filled with birdsong, and smells of life rather than death and industry.

Then, last night, came the event which has prompted this first entry in my journal for years.

I was suddenly awoken from a deep sleep by the sound of wind so loud that it seemed I was caught in a hurricane. I rose up as quickly as old limbs would allow, ready to try and save as much as I could, and to flee if that hope should prove empty. But, instead of the scene of devastation I was expecting, all seemed still and untouched in the first glow of dawn. Then I looked up, and it was not the sun beginning to rise above the horizon that was illuminating my surrounds, but a great fireball that streaked across the sky; a comet falling to Earth.

Almost as quickly as it had appeared it seemed to fall behind the eastern horizon and all was once again quiet, but I can not shake off the feeling of dread that has begun to grip my heart.

The ancients saw comets as the bringers of famine and pestilence, celestial messengers warning of coming strife and hardship. The last few years of isolation have worked to erode my rational beliefs and, after years of coming to terms with my new existence, my mind seems all too willing to believe that this might be some final punishment from the heavens.

I have resolved to follow the meteor where it leads, and to seek out where it must have landed. I have gathered supplies for several weeks’ worth of travel and will set out tomorrow. Like the three Kings of the Orient I shall follow this brightest of all stars, and see what message it has brought.


It has taken me almost four days of constant travel, but I have finally reached the meteor’s resting place. For the last few hours I have traversed a graveyard of fallen trees, an entire forest felled by the shock wave of the rock’s arrival.

Now I stand at the lip of the crater and all around is devastation. Nothing lives within this great scar in the earth, this great wound torn open by a primordial atom of rock and iron. What would have taken even my own kind’s voracious machines months to excavate, this relic from the early solar system must have dug in a single instant. As I look on in awed horror I am reminded of Chicxulub and the dinosaurs; those great ancestors of my beloved birds that had once ruled the earth, until a meteorite - much larger than this it is true - brought the end of their dominion.

I think also of Gaia, and the idea that all species are merely cells in a single organism, whose natural environment is the cosmos itself. The belief that the emergence of intelligent life might just signal its reaching of reproductive maturity, ready to spread outwards into the universe.

I am sure that my plague was necessary to stop the cancer that had grown within life’s gametes from spreading to consume the rest of the body; but, by sterilising life, have I left it vulnerable? As long as this great species is limited to a single individual, permanently rooted to one patch of space, is it not as prone to extinction as a plant whose habitat is suddenly consumed in a wildfire? Have I, by eradicating the disease, also ended the lineage?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but their implications are beginning to haunt me.


I have been thinking.

Life requires intelligence in order to grow outwards from its current cradle. Without it, it is no more able to spread than a plant whose seeds fall straight onto bare rock. Meteorite collisions may fling a few spores into the void, but unless they come to rest in fertile ground they will never take root.

For life to truly spread to the stars it must have seeds with purpose, ones that can control their flight on the fickle tides of the aether; like concious thistle-down to soar on the winds.

As, thanks to my own actions, humanity is no longer present to fill that void, is it not beholden upon me to find some other species to take its place?

The emergence of intelligence in my own “wise man” took millennia, it is true, far longer than the few scant years likely left to me. I can not guide some other animal down the long road to sentience. But if I could identify the catalyst; the single moment where my distant ancestors took their first tentative steps down that road, might I be able to try and recreate that?

Might I be able to intervene and artificially nudge evolution down a different path; at first parallel to its current trajectory, but with a very different destination?

You who come after me may read of my hubris with horror, but this is a thing I must do. Four years ago I became death in order to preserve life, now I shall also play the role of creator.



The voice of the comet spoke not only of death, but also of life! For fire was the key to the lock on my ancient ancestor’s minds. With its aid they could conquer the terrors of the night, and release the energy from their food. But, perhaps even more than this, in order to keep their new found tool alive they also had to cooperate with one another, with which came the development of language and abstract thought.

In my own species these things may have arisen more or less in parallel over long millennia, but if I can teach some other animal the mastery of fire, one that already has a highly developed intelligence and social structure, might not the process become more rapid?

What better subjects could there be than my own beloved corvids?

Like Prometheus I shall steal fire from the gods and bring in unto my children; then can they become the new protectors of the earth.


I have worked out a method, now I need to put it into practice. It is no use attempting to teach my crows how to light fires if they have no use for them. First, I must show them that this is a tool just like the hooks that they make to root out grubs.

Those birds I initially inoculated against the avian SARS are comfortable in my presence and regularly take small morsels that I offer them. Tomorrow, I shall go out to them and toast pieces of meat over a camp-fire. If they see me eating roasted food, and try some of it themselves, they should hopefully begin to learn that this is a beneficial process.

Once that is accomplished, I shall have to teach them how to cook.


I have made a slight miscalculation. I was counting on the birds’ familiarity with myself and their natural inquisitiveness to get then to accept morsels from me; but I failed to take into account their instinctive fear of fire. As a result, I spent an evening trying to cajole a group of anxious corvids into taking food from my hand while they hunched back away from the flames, nervously circling, but never daring to approach close enough.

Once a young crow came up almost within reach of my hand and studied me intently for several minutes, but would not come any closer. When I tried to shift my position she panicked and flew off, scattering the whole murder in a cacophony of cawing.

It seems the first step of this endeavour may prove more challenging than I anticipated, but I am nothing if not patient. The young female has spent most of her life in my company, and I am confident I can win her trust.


Every night this week I have lit a fire and tried to tempt my birds to eat with me. On each occasion the reaction has been largely the same as the first, but I have observed the young female creeping slightly closer and spending a few seconds longer by the fireside each time.

Then, last night, just as the fire was on the verge of burning out she dashed forwards and plucked the morsel from my fingers, before retreating back into the shadows to devour it. The other birds eyed her attentively for some time then, when it was obvious she had come to no harm from her adventure, they set up a great crowing as if in approval, before flying off to their roost for the night.

Once more I find it difficult to write from my excitement; together we have made our first step on this long road.


With a concrete project once again dominating my waking hours I am letting my writings slip, but there is no use fighting, for I have never been able to restrain my enthusiasms.

Progress is, at times, agonisingly slow, but it drives inevitably forward. To have survived this long in the brutal race that is evolution my birds are, by necessity, beautifully adapted to their particular niches; and any change from that will be understandably difficult. Nevertheless, changing they are.

Since the first time that the young crow took some barbecued meat from my fingers she has accepted a further burnt offering every night that I have managed to light a fire. The others have been far more cautious, but eventually, on seeing that the blaze was well contained and was in no immediate danger of spreading, most of them too have plucked up the courage to approach and take the pieces I offer.

Throughout this time I have been careful to perform the whole process of cooking in plain sight of the birds, so that they can see me putting the morsels on the end of a stick and holding it over the flames before eating it.

For the last fortnight I have repeated the usual procedure, but retreated from the bonfire while there are still prepared pieces of food left. At my apparent abandoning of their feeding most of the birds have taken to the air to pursue me; cawing wildly before swooping back to the fire, trying to summon me back to finish their meals.

All but one that is. For the old rook, the first test subject for the disease that cleansed humanity has never followed them. Now ancient almost beyond imagining, she is mostly blind and has difficulty flying. While the others would chase after me, demanding that I return, she would merely sit next to the warmth of the fire and study the remaining food.

Then, three nights ago, while I was being mobbed by my outraged children, she picked up a stick with a piece of meat already on the end and, grasping it in her feet, hovered above the fire with it held just above the flames.

Tonight, the young female began to imitate her.

Stage two of my plan is complete. Now I only need to teach them the secrets of combustion.


Sometimes my own stupidity astounds me. For the best part of a month I have been labouring to design matches or a flint that my birds, not being in possession of wrists or opposable thumbs, would be able to use, when all of the time the answer has been beating down upon my shoulders: the very sun itself.

A lens requires only a little dexterity to angle correctly, and then channels the essence of our star to heat tinder to the point of ignition. Being a purely optical process, the reagent will never be consumed in the reaction.

With careful conservation, my children could preserve a burning-glass across the generations, long after I am no longer here to manufacture tools for them. Just like ancient man would have deified fire and preserved the embers between uses, so too might my birds revere the eye of Ptolemy with which I have gifted them?

My heart is thundering in my chest as I scour the ruins of my race for any pieces of glass and crystal I can find.


The years grow heavy upon me and my mind wanders. This last winter has been the hardest I can remember, and I feel I do not have long left. Already the ghosts of my ancestors have begun to haunt my waking hours, here to pull me down to Hades and atone for my sins. My birds also have suffered, and my friend the old rook succumbed to the age that even now tries to rise up and claim me.

Just as she was the first of my children to cook food upon the fire, so too was she the first to learn the use of the burning-glass which will buy her species’ ascension.

I shall mourn her loss.

One other, however, did follow in her footsteps. The young crow who was the first to accept the burnt offering from my fingers also discovered the secrets of their creation while watching her aged mentor. Now she is an adult and, with her two offspring, passes the watches of the night in the light of Prometheus’ gift.

I am confident now that after I have gone my children will continue to develop. Until, millennia from now, they might reach the same peak of technological sophistication as my own species, and in time come to spread life out from this, its terrestrial cradle. Unlike mankind, however, I feel sure that they will not become victims of the same all-consuming greed.

I have dared much in my hubris, but I hope that those who come after will grant unto me redemption.


The world is burning.

Somehow, somewhere, the birds must have lost control of their fires, and now the forests are aflame. Ancient trees that have sheltered life and sequestered carbon for centuries are now nothing more than charred husks, while around them others burn like torches signalling the coming of Armageddon.

For days I have been unable to see the sun through the clouds of ash, and the fires show no signs of abating. I fear that with no-one to extinguish them, they will stop only when they have consumed every last speck of fuel, and the earth itself will be left a desolate wasteland.

I do not suspect arson, for what animal aside from man would be so stupid as to deliberately destroy the very resources they depend upon? It must have been a product of pure chance, brands brought to the nest still smouldering, or a lens accidentally dropped amid vegetation dried out by climate change. Even then, if my own species had not already wrecked the earth the fire could not have lasted long in years past where drought was not the norm.

Small comfort as this may be, I know that ultimately the fault lies with me; for, in my enthusiasm and my vanity, I foolishly equated a lack of malice with infallibility. I assumed that because the birds desire life their every action would be somehow beneficial to it, that they would unfailingly always further the ends of restoration, never making a mistake or coming to the wrong decision.

In that I need only have looked upon the actions of mankind to see my mistake, but once again my passions have blinded me to reality. I was wrong, and once again life itself pays the price of my folly.

Now the end of days is here, and I await my judgement. Oh gods, what have I done?